Poverty and climate change are high on the agenda of the EU-Latin America summit opening in Peru on Friday. But the growing rift between Venezuela and Colombia over the FARC rebels is one of the factors threatening to undermine the event.
Lingering disputes and personality clashes were expected to add friction to a Latin America-European Union summit in Peru Friday that is aimed at addressing climate change and poverty.
Leaders from 50 Latin American and European nations have converged on Lima for the summit, which will address in particular the recent spike in world food prices that has generated violence in several countries.
Preparations for the talks were overshadowed by rows, most of them involving South America's 'enfant terrible,' Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who has ruffled feathers both within Latin America and across the Atlantic.
Foremost is his longstanding hostility with the president of neighboring Colombia, Alvaro Uribe.
Their often belligerent rhetoric resumed recently over Chavez's alleged support of the Colombian guerrilla group FARC, supposedly confirmed by data found in a rebel laptop seized by Colombian troops in a controversial cross-border raid into Ecuador in March.
Chavez said Thursday it "will be very difficult" to secure the release of hostages being held by the FARC while Uribe is in power.
Chavez and German Chancellor Angela Merkel -- who was among the first of the Europeans to arrive Thursday -- were also in a frosty period.
Merkel last week urged other Latin American countries to distance themselves from Chavez and his socialist proselytizing, prompting the Venezuelan firebrand to say that the German political right backing Merkel was "the same movement that supported Hitler."
Still smarting from being told to "shut up" by Spain's King Juan Carlos at a summit six months ago, Chavez has sought to portray the Europeans as maintaining a tone of colonial superiority.
His provocations have been met with deliberately calm responses, with Merkel, Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero and others saying they would greet Chavez as politely as any of the other leaders.
The summit's host, Peruvian President Alan Garcia, gave a small hint of his irritation with his Venezuelan counterpart, however, by criticizing unnamed "populist" Latin American regimes.
Chavez will have several allies at the summit, among them Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and Bolivian President Evo Morales. He will also be addressing an alternative "people's summit" organized by leftwing groups in the city.
A Peruvian political analyst, Aldo Panfichi, said Venezuela's presence would at least "put issues clearly on the table" and define the options dividing the two blocs.
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso told reporters in Lima late Wednesday that Europe was going to ensure the summit "is not simply just another summit, but rather a summit that can mark the pledge of commitment between Latin America and Europe."
A couple of glaring absences, though, appeared to undermine that goal.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy, initially keen to attend, was sending his prime minister, Francois Fillon, instead.
Likewise, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi were not expected, instead sending lower-level representation.
Cuba's new leader, Raul Castro, was also not coming, despite early speculation that he would make it his first appearance in an international forum.
EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson told reporters that differences between Europe and Latin American nations on several issues, particularly bananas, could threaten planned 2009 EU free trade agreements with two groupings on the continent.
"It will be a major missed opportunity if we do not accelerate our negotiations," he warned.
Currently, Mexico and Chile are the only countries in Latin America which have free trade agreements with Europe.
Date created : 2008-05-16